A murdered sun. A monument to the first rat in space. Smuggling souls, stories, and time itself. Your Inconvenient Aunt. These are but a few of the horrors and wonders you will encounter during your time in Sunless Skies’ haunted and hilarious universe.
It is the early 20th century, and imperialistic London has spread its reach to the heavens themselves. Spread between four separate biomes, your journey will be one of survival and discovery, as you captain your own locomotive through space. That’s right, locomotive. Your space ship is a train.
Your time in Sunless Skies will be split between a text-based RPG and top-down survival horror exploration. Both are quite good, but it’s Failbetter’s exquisite words that are the main attraction.
Failbetter Games is well-known for their signature writing style, both within and without of the gaming community. Both the mundane and the extraordinary are told through small snippets of flavor text, keeping you coming back for more. Specific and ephemeral, silly and chilling, it often stands in ironic contrast to itself. Some stories are more important than others, but all are entertaining and create a great sense of world-building. Characters don’t have exact names, rather they’re brief descriptions such as “The Incautious Driver”, “The Clay Conductor”, or “The Inadvisably Big Dog”. More often than not they serve to show off the writer’s talent at wordplay than anything else. Sunless Skies doesn’t have much of an overall story, though there are about a half-dozen endings so far (more to come in free updates and probably DLC someday) you can achieve if you want. But largely, the narrative shifts from story to story, occasionally overlapping or connecting. It gives the game a very dreamlike, and occasionally relaxing quality. You’re just a traveler, floating through the cosmos, stepping in and out of people’s lives…
…Except when your not. Space is full of dangerous foes, both human and not. As you chug along through the vast reaches of the heavens, you’ll encounter hostile ships, bugs, monsters, and beings that you’ll either have to kill or be killed by. This is done in real time and involves dodging around each other and getting in shots with your weapons to eventually wear down the enemies hull or health. It’s fairly simple, but allows for a lot of depth and strategy if you want. Unlike its predecessor, Sunless Sea, Sunless Skies now has multiple combat difficulty settings, tailoring the experience for the most casual or hardcore players. Either way, you will die at some point, but that’s all a part of the fun. A legacy system passes on some of your items, progress, and experience to a successor captain. Even this though, can be turned off, instead when you die you’ll reset to the last port you were at. I’d recommend even novice players stick with the default option though, its far less punishing than Sunless Sea was a helps build a sense of dread.
Speaking of dread, the Fear mechanic returns to Sunless Skies, with a few new modifications. Enemies aren’t your only, well, enemy in space. As you drift through cosmic horrors, you and your crew will gradually begin to build up fear. As your fear builds up, well, things begin to happen. Build your fear up enough and you will gain a semi-permanent nightmares point, which will cause more things to happen. Fear is actually pretty easy to manage and is not a threat on all but the longest of journies. Nightmares is a bit trickier, but there are some options to reduce them. Depending on where you are though, it may be a while until you reach one of said options. Normally you want to keep your fear as low as possible, but occasionally its fun to experiment by letting it build up. There are some pretty cool and terrifying story events that will come up, and the environment around you will begin to look and sound different as well.
Story and gameplay aren’t the only defining features of Sunless Skies, however. The art direction is also fantastic. As you explore outer space, you’ll notice the many-layered backdrop you fly against. Visual and audio cues add to the immersion. At ports, storylets and characters are illustrated with beautiful hand-drawn art. There’s never a dull scene, and some of the sights you’ll encounter are absolutely breathtaking. Sunless Skies is the kind of experience you can come away from and say “You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve seen”.
Sunless Skies is not a game for everyone, it is slow-paced, weird, and can be difficult at times, even on easier settings. However, if you want to talk with sentient mushrooms, smuggle barreled hours, or lose your mind, this may be the game for you.
Failbetter Games’ Sunless Skies costs $24.99 and is available from Steam, GOG, and Humble Bundle. Below I’ve included the Launch Trailer and my ongoing playthrough if you want to learn more.
Enjoy my content? Support me on Patreon!